Monday, August 15, 2011

Bob Richards Rises to the Top, Again!

Michael Doornbos.
For those of us who like to track the progress of the teams competing for the Google Lunar-X Prize (GLXP), the EvaDot blog has become something of a "publication of record" with it's ongoing and comprehensive coverage of the twenty eight official teams competing for $30 million in prizes to be the first commercial enterprise to land an automated probe on Earths nearest neighbor.

EvaDot uses an innovative series of criteria that founder Michael Doornbos (who also organizes the annual Space-UP DC conference) calls the "Google Lunar X PRIZE Team Scorecard / Scoreboard" and which includes judgements on team funding, technical innovations, the use of social media, team connections to the wider world and milestones achieved.

According to Doornbos, the GLXP isn't a "technical competition." It's really a question of money and connections.

Perhaps that's why the August 8th, 2011 post on the EvaDot blog titled "Suddenly Moon Express has become the team to beat. On the rocks, with a twist" shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. According to the article, GLXP competitor Moon Express, "armed with a billionaire backer, deep connections in the space and tech industries, and a sudden barrage of press" has become the team most likely to win the competition.

And one of the people providing those required key connections is Canadian born Moon Express CEO Robert (Bob) Richards, the space serial entrepreneur and ex-Optech International space services director who also managed to find time to co-found the International Space University (ISU), Singularity University (SU), Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), the Space Generation Foundation and even GLXP competitor Odyssey Moon Ltd.

Joining Richards as co-founders in this venture are Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former NASA R&D Manager Barney Pell, who will also serve as vice-chairman/ chief technology officer plus philanthropist/ entrepreneur Naveen Jain who is acting as chairman and "billionaire backer" as described in the EvaDot article.

Moon Express bills itself as a privately funded lunar transportation and data services company with the people, "partners and financial resources to blaze a trail to the Moon and establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit" although the primary, initial source of revenue seems to be the chance to win the GLXP.

However, a second source of immediate revenue accrues under the terms of the $30M NASA Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program. According to the October 19th, 2010 post on the Luna CI blog titled "NASA Awards Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) Contracts" six GLXP competitors (including Moon Express) have received NASA contracts worth up to $10 million USD for data they collect on how to operate low-cost lunar missions.

But perhaps the real secret to the Moon Express effort is that the participants are using existing, off the shelf components in an attempt to move the questions and concerns away from the technology and towards the business case, which focuses on mining rare materials in obscure, out of the way places.

Barney Pell.
Just like hundreds of other mining companies throughout the world.

As outlined in my June 20th, 2010 post "Mining as a Model for the Commercial Space Industry," the costs for deep water mining and resource collection are the same order of magnitude as space focused activities these days. As well, there are no real reason why space focused mining companies can't use the same tax credits that mining companies everywhere use to raise money, just so long as mining eventually occurs somewhere.

Even if that somewhere eventually ends up being in space. .

This gives Moon Express an existing and well understood "business model" which allows investors to make independent assessments into the business case and makes it more likely to attract outside investment.

Of course, having a rich co-founder also helps (just ask Space-X CEO Elon Musk) and the analogy certainly isn't perfect. For one, the laws (as described in my February 5th, 2010 post "Feedback on 'the Men Who've Sold the Moon'") don't presently support the requirements needed to "stake a claim" for minerals in space.

But in essence, it's good to see an old acquaintance rise once again to the top of the heap with a business idea that might, just might, begin to make a lot of business sense and help move the industry forward.

Good luck, Moon Express.

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